TEXT Review


Poetry: The abstract personal reality


review by Peter Mitchell

 

 


True North
Bernard T. Harrison
Five Islands Press (School of Creative Arts, University of Wollongong) 2004
ISBN 1-74128-075-3
91pp.

Bones
L. E. Scott
Five Islands Press (School of Creative Arts, University of Wollongong) 2004
ISBN 1-74128-076-1
72pp.

 

It has been suggested that we are witnessing the death of the poet in the literary marketplace, but rumours of poetry's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Poetry will probably pull through, but teachers of writing need to adjust their pedagogies in order to give it relevance in a changing world. Poetry in written form is read in the niche-lands of the Internet and in boutique publications. Performed poetry reaches audiences in forums such as poetry breakfasts at music festivals, tertiary creative writing programs, writing appreciation classes and even as part of the stand-up comedy circuit. For all of this, poetry was once a much more socially significant way for readers to access personal and confessional writing. However, audiences retain a taste for personal 'truths'. The descent of poetry contrasts with the ascent of related literary forms: autobiography and 'true story'. It may be that potential readers of poetry are not being strategically exposed to its powers during their formal education.

The survival of published and performed poetry in various and innovative forms is a measure of the flexibility of poets who have had to seek out their audiences wherever they can. The popularity of lyric-centred music styles, such as Hip Hop, Rap and Independent Rock also reflects the taste for personal and poetic writing. The implication for teachers and students of writing is that pedagogies need to be as adaptable as poets have been. The study of poetry at school needs to better connect with the real world experiences of young audiences. The uses of ecological and urban themed poetry, humour and song-poems are approaches that will tap the interest of future appreciators of poetry. In times such as these, Harrison's True North and Scott's Bones are vital expressions of poetic personal realities and, because they deal with contemporary themes in a range of voices and styles, would serve as excellent pedagogical tools.

Harrison and Scott come from diverse backgrounds and it is no surprise that they have different styles. They might consider themselves connected only by the fact that they share Five Islands Press as their publisher, but I detect other points of connection. Principally, True North and Bones trace the arcs of poets' lives that began in the northern hemisphere and led to poetic perspectives that were drawn together in the southern hemisphere, from either side of the Tasman Sea.

Scott is described as an 'African American jazz poet', but he is more than this. Living in New Zealand when Bones was published in 2004, Scott has emerged over thirty-five years of writing and publishing poetry as a world citizen. He is a profound observer and thinker and the twenty-six poems in Bones contain a complex amalgam of themes, worthy of a poet of his accomplishment.

Bones encompasses blackness and light, joy and sorrow and is not a book for the faint hearted. Containing contradictions in this way may be confusing - to seek after simplicity and complexity in the same endeavour, to seek moral truth in an amoral world. Scott's book, however, suggests that because there is life in death, and vice versa, inherent contradiction is elemental to being alive and, therefore, fundamental to poetry.

Scott's poems are embedded in earth tones and dwell in the tortured spirit of a man looking for meaning in difficult times. Scott writes with a spiritual rhythm that harkens back to his Baptist upbringing and the black gospel churches of his childhood. This remains his signature, even if works such as 'A Poem For God' suggest that Scott now mourns a lost faith. Many of the poems are dark in tone and draw heavily on the inevitability that the concerns and substance of humankind will pass. This is not new. It is, perhaps, apart from 'love and loss', the central occupation of poets throughout the ages.

In Harrison's case, the thirty-five poems in True North, surprisingly his first published collection of poems, also reflect the concerns of poets throughout time. There is, however, a more deliberate blending of classical and modern writing styles. This considered approach may reflect Harrison's career as an academic and scholar of English and teaching. This is not intended as a criticism. There is a powerful erudition at work in True North. Harrison's word play creates a sense of yearning for a mythological past. This lies beneath the surface of many of his reflections. The overall effect is a contemporary-epic poetry hybrid. It is in this that we hear Harrison's original voice.

There are three sections in True North, 'Deliverance', 'Oceania' and 'Legends'. These divisions represent stages from the author's life, moving from languid English and European landscapes through to the harshness and drama of Australia. Not surprisingly, the nostalgia for a revered place and a golden age, presumably for places associated with Harrison's own childhood and youth, is most obvious in the 'Deliverance' section:

There, in the garden, in the July heat,
The scents of fresh-leaved mint, sweet marjoram
Weighed in the heavy air, mingled with spikes [of lavender] -
(14)

Into the garden come lovers, exchanging words 'like shuttlecocks'. The writing has an old fashioned flavour and creates a sentimental mood. Harrison establishes his poetic palate of myth and nature, with which the incursions of latter-day human activity will be explored as True North unfolds. Harrison is methodical and writes in a structured way. He is not as spontaneous as Scott but neither is he as morbid.

Scott writes from a darker place. Recurring images in many of his poems reflect and explain the book's title. From the outset, Scott quotes Richard Selzer:

[Bones are] the keepsake of the earth, all that remains of man -
(9)

Scott's own bony images include:

…some woman opened her legs
something fathered
you

us can't say
there was a gatekeeper
some other children - grown up now
came back too, and stoned
the keeper
it was that kind of crime
us don't know
if it was true
or not

people run
in wolf packs too
digging up bone -
(51)

And:

…camels sensing that even in death
their bones will not be free -
(45)

Inevitability, dust, ash, decaying flesh, blood, growth, rebirth ('…we are born again in wind-dust memories…' ( 45), ancestral bones (witness to time passing), all combine to give Scott his central themes, which he explores alongside his own identity.

There is a man festering in the sun
red eyes
blueblack skin
heart turned upside-down
like an afrikan turtle on dry land -
(45)

There are funeral poems, hymns of despair and darkness, but amidst this there is new life and the occasional rainbow, even if only in a child's memory (14). The sense that life is precious and fleeting is never far from the surface.

Harrison deals with the passing of beauty in his own way. In much of True North the natural world is retreating as 'brute commercialisation' encroaches. In 'Seaforth', from 'The Seaforth Sestet', hollyhocks and penguins are juxtaposed with urban developments. The next poem in the sestet, 'The Barbie', explores the 'mosquito buzz' of intolerance among guests at a typical Aussie barbecue. As the sestet proceeds, aboriginal motifs are set against selfishness, traced by Harrison to colonial pastoralists and miners. This extract from 'The Banquet' captures a sense of Harrison's tone and motivation for writing epic poetry:

Where can I begin to show
You, how the inspiration
For life's epic poetry here,
On the edge of endless land, and
Endless seas, springs from its vast
Indivisibility?

Its protean spirit flew
Through cathedrals of karri,
Jarrah, tinglewood - revered
By the people of the land -
Into whips, thorns, the flayed skins
Of thieves in prisoner lines -
(50-55)

The land provides a bounty - a banquet - and none but those who are dead in Gingin cemetery, turning 'to dust through the summer's heat' and draining away with the winter rains, have ever understood, respected or celebrated the Earth. The poems in 'The Seaforth Sestet' are eloquent and tragic and are Harrison at his best.

Scott's poems may be broadly categorised into the 'personal' and the 'political'. Like Harrison, he does not shy away from making judgements about the evil he perceives in the world. He rails against uncaring government and poor health care (34), ethnic cleansing (59), the 'war against terrorism' (25), and the 'unrighteous black leaders of Africa' (20). For all Scott's conviction, these poems, to my mind, are less successful than his personal ones.

The theme of 'death of the father' is handled beautifully in Bones. From the chilling and recognisable reality on the occasion of a father's funeral - presided over by a Minister who barely knew the deceased (32) - to the touching internal dialogue in 'Nightfall - To Slay The Father', we see something of Scott's own struggle. Scott is drawn to the 'father theme', both as a metaphor for God and the world and because he seeks to resolve his own feelings for a flesh-and-blood parent who was hated and loved while he lived. 'Nightfall - To Slay The Father' is also interesting in a literary sense as it includes an argument about the use of 'the poem' by the poet as a coping mechanism for grief. There is poignancy in Scott's struggle to lay his father's ghost:

I need to finish this poem, I need you out of my head. I walk into a dark room and see my father, I hear voices - how do I get out of this graveyard? Did the undertaker bury the key to the gate with my father? Dig up the dead, let us all be free. Father, I love you in death as I never did… (68)

Scott intersperses the intimate and simple with what appear to be intentionally bewildering elements, designed, perhaps, to give the impression that treasures are buried within an avalanche of poetry, as bones are buried within the implacable earth.

Trends in publishing come and go. Major publishing houses have all but abandoned poetry as a viable genre and poets who are not already well known have gravitated to niche markets such as the few remaining poetry reviews, the Internet, non-traditional performance venues and small-scale publishing. I wonder if it is a paradox that during the mainstream descent of poetry there has been a rise in the popularity of autobiography and biography or if it is a reflection that curricula in schools incorporate extensive study of film and television - genres that require less effort in order to grab a hit of the personal? Has this pedagogical shift merely followed societal trends and has this, in turn, pushed poetry aside? There should, of course, be room for both, but I suspect that overly esoteric poets have contributed to the alienation of recent generations of readers. The pedagogical challenge has always been to develop approaches to poetry that are relevant to the age they are written in. As a poet once sang:

[The] old road is rapidly agin'
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.
(Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin', 1964)

The best poetry always conveys a sense of who the poet was or wanted to be and, in this sense, is closely akin to autobiography. This suggests that a wider market for well-crafted and relevant poetry may yet exist. The key for teachers and students of writing is to exploit teaching strategies and entertainment technologies and to embrace the realities of the literary marketplace. In the case of Harrison and Scott, they both manage to give their readers powerful insights into their lives, concerns and hopes. The desire to write about oneself is integral to human communication and Harrison and Scott's shared insights are a measure, by any yardstick, of successful writing. Bones and True North are fine collections of contemporary poems for teachers and students to explore and use and they deserve a wider audience than they will reach.

Personal poetic realities are artifices constructed out of pieces of the truth but they are no less real for that. The poetic deconstruction and reassembly of reality allows us to better see its essences. Harrison and Scott have written complex yet approachable collections and are to be congratulated. But, like poets everywhere, they may suffer from and be guilty of the charge:

It is always the poem, isn't it? No matter the agony or the destitution, you reduce it to the poem -
(Scott 69)


 

Peter Mitchell is a poet, songwriter and high schoolteacher. He is currently a PhD candidate in Writing at the University of New England, working in the area of the ethics of memoir writing.

 

 

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TEXT
Vol 10 No 1 April 2006
http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/art/text/
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb
Text@griffith.edu.au